WHEN talking about the US role in Asian power politics, Clinton administration officials go to the numbers - that is, numbers of US troops based in the region.
In the bad old days of the cold war, forward-deployed US forces in Europe outnumbered those in Asia by 4 to 1 or more. But soon the ratio will be roughly equal, with approximately 100,000 American military personnel in each part of the world.
This change in priorities reflects a geopolitical reality, officials claim: For the United States, Asia is becoming more and more vital. By the 21st century US diplomats may consider it the most important continent on the globe.
The Clinton administration's bottom-up review of the Pentagon's military structure called for little change in forces devoted to Asia, said Winston Lord, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in a recent Congressional appearance. ``Defense cuts have been at the expense of European bases and bases here at home,'' he said.
Many Asian nations, however, remain nervous about the strength of the US commitment to the security of their region. They have watched the uproar in Washington over US involvement in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They wonder whether the US is about to turn inward in neo-isolationism, abandoning commitments to other parts of the world.
US forward-deployed forces have actually declined about 30 percent from their cold-war-era height during the Reagan administration, analysts say. The Philippines has kicked the US out of its huge Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Air Base. Some speculate that further defense-budget cuts could drive a US strategic withdrawal.
``We are not sure ourselves where we are headed. So how can those Asian countries be sure?'' says Chong-Pin Lin, an Asian studies expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
The economic forces driving US interest in Asia are clear. The trade deficit notwithstanding, US exports to Japan now surpass those to Germany, France, and Italy combined.
Asian security issues have occupied US attention as well - witness the US effort devoted to wooing North Korea back within the confines of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. A nuclear-armed North Korea would be a profound threat to US interests, endangering not only South Korea, but also Japan.
US officials insist that they remain fully committed to maintaining an Asian agenda. Indeed, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has raised some hackles in Europe recently by suggesting that the days of Eurocentric US diplomacy are over. President Clinton himself in his July visit to the region promised a more active US-Asian agenda.
THE loss of the bases in the Philippines was a blow to the US. To make up for the loss, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have offered access to their airfields and ship-repair facilities, and the US presence on Guam is now growing. Extensive logistical facilities in Japan also remain.
South Korea has the largest US ground presence, with 37,000 troops. Plans call for this number to be cut substantially, however, if or when the nuclear proliferation stand-off with North Korea is resolved.
Asian nations might well wish for a continued large US contingent in Korea to ensure general stability in the region even if tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang ease. Yet ``I don't think there will be any public support in the US for keeping troops in Korea if the North Korean threat dissipates,'' says Thomas McNaugher, a Brookings Institution analyst who is writing a book about US strategy in Asia.
Ultimately, the security purposes of the US and Asian allies might diverge. The US wants to guard against specific threats - if not to Korea, then to sea trade lanes. Many in Asia, however, see the US as a relatively neutral big power ensuring general stability. If the US pulls out, the vacuum could be filled by a remilitarized Japan or an aggressive China. Both these scenarios would frighten many smaller neighbors. ``We're the only major power they all trust,'' says one Washington defense consultant.